Hindū Dharma or Hinduism (Sanskrit: हिन्दू धर्म, is often referred by its practitioners as Sanātana Dharma, सनातन धर्म; Vaidika Dharma, वैदिक धर्म; or Vedic Tradition) is the spiritual, philosophical, scientific and cultural system that originated in Bharatavarsha (the Indian subcontinent), that is based on the Vedas, and it is the oldest of all living religious traditions still practiced today. A Hindu, as per definition, is an adherent of the spiritual practices, yoga, philosophies and scriptures of Hindu Dharma.
What Is Hindu Dharma (or Hinduism)?
Hinduism is a modern term, but it represents the ancient most living thought and culture of the world. The concept of 'Hindu-ism' (categorically termed 'Hinduism' in the narrow sense 'religion') being a single monolithic religion is recent, dating back only to the 19th century. Many scholars liken Hinduism to a family of religions, with all affiliated members bearing a family resemblance. The Hindu tradition consists of several schools of thought. Thus any definition of Hinduism is somewhat arbitrary and requires qualification. One such definition is "the followers of Vaidika Dharma," or those who follow the religious teachings outlined in the Vedas and their corollaries.
This difficulty arises from its universal world-view as it has concerned itself largely with the human situation rather than the Hindu situation. Instead of basing its identity on separating Hindu from non-Hindu or believer from non-believer, Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.
Thus Hinduism is rightly called a dharma that was evolved by the great rishi (sages and seers) of ancient India. It emphasizes the dharma (right way of living) rather than a set of doctrines, and thus embraces diverse thoughts and practices. Hinduism has been called the "cradle of spirituality" and "the mother of all religions," partly because it has influenced virtually every major religion.
Hinduism is much more than an esoteric practice. For the millions of people who practice this religion, it is a way of life that encompasses all aspects of life including family, social life, sciences, politics, business, art, and health behaviors. The sacred scriptures contain instructions on these aspects of life and have a strong influence on art and drama. While the ascetic practices of yoga are a well-known aspect of Hinduism, family life is also considered a sacred duty.
The Hindu Dharma or Sanatana Dharma has its origins in such remote past that it cannot be traced to any one individual. It is the only religion, that is not founded in a single historic event or prophet, but which itself precedes recorded history. Some scholars view that Hinduism must have existed even in circa 10,000 B.C. and that the earliest of the Hindu scriptures – the Rigveda — was composed well before 6,500 B.C. Yet, in spite of the fact that it first evolved more than 5,000 years ago, Hinduism is also very much a living tradition.
The word 'Hindu' has its origin in Sanskrit literature. In the Rigveda, Bharat is referred to as the country of 'Sapta Sindhu', i.e. the country of seven great rivers. The word 'Sindhu' refers to rivers and sea and not merely to the specific river called 'Sindhu'. In Vedic Sanskrit, according to ancient dictionaries, 'sa' was pronounced as 'ha'. Thus 'Sapta Sindhu' was pronounced as 'Hapta Hindu'. This is how the word 'Hindu' came in to being.
The term was used for those who lived in Bharatavarsha1 (the Indian subcontinent) on or beyond the "Sindhu". Since the end of the 18th century the word has been used as an umbrella term for most of the religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions of the sub-continent, that includes other sampradaya (spiritual lineages) of Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It generally denotes the religious, philosophical, scientific and cultural traditions native to India.
Sanātana Dharma: The Timeless and Universal Way
Hindus themselves prefer to use the Sanskrit term sanātana dharma for their religious tradition. Sanātana Dharma means eternal and universal law or principle that governs everyone irrespective of culture, race, religion, belief and practices. These truths regarding the universal principle were divinely revealed to ancient rishis (sages). For many eons they were passed down orally and only later written down, apparently around the start of the Kali Yuga when people's memories began to deteriorate.
The distinction of dharma from the Western sense of religion is crucial to understanding Hindu religious identity. To the extent that Hinduism carries with it the Western meaning of being a 'religion' the words distort Indian reality. In the West a religion is understood to be conclusive — that is, it is the one and only true religion. Second, a religion is generally exclusionary — that is, those who do not follow it are excluded from salvation. Finally, a religion is separative — that is, to belong to it, one must not belong to another. Dharma, however, does not necessarily imply any of these.
The word sanātana, meaning immemorial as well as eternal, emphasized the unbroken continuity of the Hindu tradition. Sanatana Dharma comprises of spiritual laws which govern the human existence. Sanatana Dharma is to human life what natural laws are to the physical phenomena. Just as the phenomena of gravitation existed before it was discovered, the spiritual laws of life are eternal laws which existed before they were discovered by the ancient rishi (sages) for the present age during the Vedic period. Sanatana Dharma declares that something cannot come out of nothing and, therefore, the universe itself is the manifestation of the Divine being.
The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral Truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such Truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this Truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogs with others — especially with enlightened individuals — provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman which is relatively different in meaning and understanding from the conventional word "God".
Concepts and Teachings
The best approach to understand Hinduism is through its teachings. Hinduism rests on the spiritual bedrock of the Vedas, hence Veda Dharma, and their mystic issue, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many great Hindu rishi and gurus (sages and seers) through the ages.
One feature unique to Hinduism is its assertion that moksha (liberation or deliverance) can be achieved in this life itself — one does not have to wait for a heaven after death. It guides people along paths that will ultimately lead to the atman (Innermost Self) and becoming one with Brahman (the Universal Consciousness).
Hindu Dharma recognizes that everyone is different and has a unique intellectual and spiritual outlook. Therefore, it allows people to develop and grow at their own pace by making different margas (spiritual paths) available to them. It allows various schools of thought under its broad principles. It also allows for freedom of worship so that individuals may be guided by their own spiritual experiences.
Within Hinduism there are various schools of thought, which Hindu scholars have systematized in different ways. All of these schools have enriched Hinduism with their individual emphases: Nyāya on rigorous logic, Vaiseshika on atoms and the structure of matter, Sānkhya on numbers and categories, Yoga on meditation techniques, Mīmāmsā on the analysis of sacred texts, and Vedānta on the nature and experience of spirituality. Their teachings are usually summarized in texts called sūtras or aphorisms. These sūtras can be memorized easily and recited as a means of gaining spiritual focus.
1. Brahman: The Ultimate Reality
Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedānta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedānta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s ātman (Innermost Self) with the Ultimate Reality. Although Vedānta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it. The word comes from the Sanskrit verb root brh, meaning "to grow". Etymologically, the term means brhati ("that which grows") and brhmayati ("which causes to grow").
Brahman, as understood by the scriptures of Hinduism, as well as by the acharyas (advocate or masters) of the Vedanta school, is a very specific conception of the Absolute. Brahman does not refer to the anthropomorphic concept of God of the Abrahamic religions. When we speak of Brahman, we are referring neither to the "old man in the sky" concept, nor to the idea of the Absolute as even capable of being vengeful, fearful or engaging in choosing a favorite people from among His creatures. In a nutshell, Brahman is formless, infinite and eternal. For that matter, Brahman is neither nether male nor female, It is beyond space and time, It is changeless and It is the source of consciousness and transcends all empirically discernable categories, limitations and dualities. Brahman cannot exist, as it is the existence Itself. Brahman is all knowing and it is knowledge Itself.
One can say that Brahman Itself constitutes the essential building material of all reality, being the antecedent primeval ontological substance from whence all things proceed. There is no ex nihilo creation in Hinduism. Brahman does not create from nothing, but from the reality of Its own being. Thus Brahman is, in Aristotelian terms, both the Material Cause as well as the Efficient Cause of creation.
All reality has its source in Brahman. All reality has its grounding sustenance in Brahman. It is in Brahman that all reality has its ultimate repose. Hinduism, specifically, is consciously and exclusively aiming toward this reality termed Brahman.
2. Aspects of Brahman
Despite having the abstract concept of Brahman, Hindus worship the Saguna Brahman in his personal forms every day. Brahman, as Nirguna, has no attributes (is formless and unmanifested), whereas as Saguna (or Iswara) is manifested and with attributes. Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara.
Whether nirguna or saguna, Brahman represents the sat (Ultimate Reality), sit (Ultimate Consciousness), and ānanda (Ultimate Bliss).
Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva: The Trinity
Saguna Brahman — that is, Brahman with attributes — generally takes the form of one of Trimurti (three main Hindu deities): Brahmā, Vishnu, or Shiva (Maheshwara). These personified forms of Brahman correspond to three stages in the cycle of the universe.
- Brahmā corresponds to the creative spirit from which the universe arises.
- Vishnu corresponds to the force of order that sustains the universe.
- Shiva corresponds to the force that brings a cycle to an end — destruction acting as a prelude to transformation, leaving pure consciousness from which the universe is reborn after destruction.
Brahman also may choose to take birth in a knowable form, or avatara (incarnation), to uphold dharma and restore balance to the world. Krishna, a well-known avatara of Vishnu, appears at times to save the world. Rāma, another well-known avatara of Vishnu, is the subject of the Hindu epic Rāmāyana (Way of Rāma).
The majority of Hindus choose a personal deity, a saguna form of Brahman with whom they can feel a direct personal connection. Devotion to this deity can take a number of forms, including prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of the deity’s name, and pilgrimage to sites sacred to the deity.
Ishvara: The Personal Aspect of God
When Brahman is viewed as the supreme personal being (rather than as the infinite principle) Brahman is called Ishvara ("The Lord";), bhagavan ("The Auspicious One";), or Parameshwara ("The Supreme Lord"). Ishvara thus refers to the personal aspect of Brahman in general; it is not specific to a particular deity. Ishvara transcends gender, yet can be looked upon as father, mother, friend, child, or even as sweetheart. Some schools of Hindu philosophy do not believe in Ishvara, while others interpret Ishvara in different ways. Some schools do not distinguish between Ishvara and Brahman. The dvaita-advaita school holds that Ishvara is not incorporeal, but is infinite and a personal being.
According to Bhagavata Purana, absolute Brahman can be realized in three ways.
- Brahman it self ( the absolute reality)
- Paramatma (union of all individual souls)
- Bhagavan (as a personal God)
Devatās: The Celestial Beings
The Hindu scriptures also speak about many celestial entities, called devas ("The shining ones", also called devatās). The word devas may be translated into English as Gods, Deities, Celestial Spirits or Angels. The feminine of deva is devī.
The Vedas and Purānas depict traditional stories about individual devas. The latter lauds the Trimurti of Mahādevas ("Great Gods"), which are the three aspects of God, Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva. Numerous other devas have been worshiped throughout Hinduism's history. The devas are an integral part of Hindu culture and are depicted in art, architecture and through icons. In their personal religious practices, Hindus worship primarily one or another of these deities, known as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal. The particular form of God worshiped as one's chosen ideal is a matter of individual preference and needs, influenced by regional and family traditions.
3. Ātman: The Innermost Self
We as individuals are also a part of this changing universe. Our bodies are constantly undergoing change, while our minds, formed of thoughts and feelings, are also in a state of flux. According to Vedānta, however, our self consists of more than mind and body. At its core lies the unchanging ātman, our innermost, transcendental Self, as opposed to the material self (our body, thoughts, and feelings) that is part of the universe. The ātman is our True Self. But we lose sight of it because of our passionate involvement with our material self and its search for happiness in this universe. The universe can never provide perfect and permanent happiness, however, because it, like our material self, is in a state of constant flux. We attain true happiness only through an awareness of our ātman and the discovery of its true relationship with Brahman.
By achieving awareness of ātman and its unity with Brahman, we attain not only happiness, but also moksha, or liberation. But liberation from what? At one level, the liberation is from unhappiness, but the answer provided by Vedānta Hinduism goes deeper: Moksha is liberation from a chain of lives called samsāra.
4. Samsāra: The Chain of Lives
We normally think of ourselves as coming into being when we are born of our parents and as perishing when we die. According to Hinduism, however, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. The point of origin of this chain cannot be determined. The process of our involvement in the universe—the chain of births and deaths—is called samsāra.
Samsāra is caused by a lack of knowledge of ātman (our Innermost Self) and our resultant desire for fulfillment outside ourselves. We continue to embody ourselves, or be reborn, in this infinite and eternal universe as a result of these unfulfilled desires. The chain of births lets us resume the pursuit. The law that governs samsāra is called karma. Each birth and death we undergo is determined by the balance sheet of our karma—that is, in accordance with the actions performed and the dispositions acquired in the past.
This cycle of action, reaction, birth, death, and rebirth is a continuum called samsara. The Bhagavad Gita states that:
As a person puts on new clothes and discards old and torn clothes,
similarly an embodied ātman (our Innermost Self) enters new material bodies,
leaving the old bodies.
— Bhagavad Gita (B.G. 2:22)
5. Karma: Action and Its Consequences
Karma is a crucial Hindu concept. According to the doctrine of karma, our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The choices we have made in the past directly affect our condition in this life, and the choices we make today and thereafter will have consequences for our future lives in samsāra. An understanding of this interconnection, according to Hindu teachings, can lead an individual toward right choices, deeds, thoughts, and desires, without the need for an external set of commandments.
The principle of karma provides the basic framework for Hindu ethics. The word karma is sometimes translated into English as “destiny,” but karma does not imply the absence of free will or freedom of action that destiny does. Under the doctrine of karma, the ability to make choices remains with the individual.
We are subject to the “law” of karma just as our physical movements on earth are subject to the law of gravitation. But just as the law of gravitation does not take away our freedom to move about, the doctrine of karma does not leave us unfree to act. It merely describes the moral law under which we function, just as the law of gravitation is a physical law governing our being.
When we cause pain or injury, we add to the karmic debt we carry into our future lives. When we give to others in a genuine way, we lighten our karmic load. In the Bhagavad-Gītā, an important Hindu text, Krishna states that the best way to be free of debt is by selfless action, or by dedicating every action as an offering to Krishna himself. In addition, human beings can purify themselves of karmic debt through different yogas (disciplines), kriyās (purification processes), and bhakti (devotions).
6. Purusharthas: Stages or Goals of Life
The Grihastha Dharma recognize four goals as noble; these are known as the puruṣhārthas, and they are:
The Sannyasin Dharma recognizes, but renounces kāma, artha and dharma, focusing entirely on moksha. As described below, the Grihasthi eventually enters this dharma as an eventual stage of life. However, some enter this stage immediately from whichever stage they may be in.
7. Moksha: Liberation from Samsara
Moksha (Freedom or Liberation) from the cycle of birth and death is the ultimate goal of Hindu religious life. Moksha is called Mukti (freedom) by yogis.
The atman (Innermost Self), in its liberated state, possesses divine qualities such as purity, omnipresence and omnipotence, and is beyond limitations. Within the individual, however, the atman is involved in the working of samsara (the cycle of birth and death in the phenomenal world), thereby subjecting itself to bondage by Law of Karma. Moksha is attainted when the individual becomes liberated from the cycle of birth and death and attains eventual union with the Brahman (Supreme Being).
This union can be achieved through gyana or jnana (True Knowledge), bhakti (devotion), or karma (right work). Purity, self-control, truthfulness, non-violence, and compassion toward all forms of life are the necessary pre-requisites for any spiritual path in Hindu dharma. The Hindu dharma emphasizes the importance of a satguru (True Guru or Spiritual Master) for the attainment of True Knowledge of the atman and Brahman.
Darshanas: Schools of Thought
As Hinduism developed, it did not reject its parent traditions, but modified and assimilated them into newer schools of thought. For example, the ancient Vedic notion of sacrifice, and the later philosophies of Sankhya and Yoga, have all been assimilated into the more recent school of Vedanta. Even the more sectarian sampradaya do not entirely reject other doctrines, but claim that they demonstrate a less complete understanding.
Despite a relatively inclusive approach, Hinduism has rejected those doctrines that do not accept its scriptural authority. Most notably these include Jainism, Buddhism, and the hedonistic philosophy of Charvaka. They are therefore called nastika, differentiating them from the accepted schools termed astika. There are six main astika systems, which are called darshanas (ways of seeing). The various groups and sub-groups within Hinduism usually subscribe to one or more of the six darshanas.
The Six Darshanas
The six darshanas are grouped as three pairs of "sisters." Each pair consists of one darshan dealing with theory and the other explaining the corresponding practice and methodology. For example, Sankhya forms the doctrinal basis for the discipline of yoga. Each pair is further explored in this section.
Some groups consider these schools to be hierarchical, with Vedanta the culmination of Vedic philosophy. This is somewhat supported by the fact that Vedanta means "the end of the Vedas" or, less literally, "the ultimate conclusion of knowledge." Certainly, Vedanta today represents the more theologically developed strands of Hinduism, and forms the basis for many modern theistic traditions.
|Vaisheshika||Kanada||Physics, especially atomic theory|
|Nyaya||Gautama||Logic and epistemology|
|Sankhya||Kapila Muni||Physics and metaphysics|
|Yoga||Patanjali||Sadhana (spiritual practices)|
|Mimamsa||Jaimini||Hermeneutics and ritual|
The Hindu tradition maintains that the ultimate reality lies beyond all scriptures, however, it is equally convinced that the scriptures help people orient their minds and lives towards Brahman. This attitude has given rise to a body of sacred literature so vast that by one calculation it would take 70 lifetimes of devoted study to read all of it. The earliest source of knowledge of Hinduism are Vedas and the Upanishads. These are the ancient most monuments of Hindu culture and tradition. They form the rock foundations of the magnificent edifice of Hinduism, and also of its offshoots and extensions like Buddhism and Jainism. The Vedas are a whole body of literature and their parts represent successive stages in the evolution of Hinduism.
Shruti and Smriti: Classification of Scriptures
Hindu scriptures can be classified into two types: shruti and smriti. Shruti, meaning “heard,” may be thought of as revelation or eternal truth, whereas smriti, meaning “remembered,” is comparable to tradition. By distinguishing that which is eternally true from that which holds true for a specific time and culture, the categories of shruti and smriti enable Hindus to reform outdated practices while remaining faithful to Hinduism’s essence. Where there is a conflict between the two, shruti takes precedence over smriti.
According to Vedānta, shruti is revelation without a revealer. Because in Hinduism the universe is without beginning or end, the Vedas appear along with creation at the beginning of each cycle of time. Then Brahmā, who presides over the re-manifestation of the universe, recites the Vedas and sages hear them anew. These divinely heard scriptures are then transmitted orally from master to disciple.
The Vedas is regarded as shruti because they are divinely “heard” by the Ṛṣis (sages) at the beginning of a cycle; and also because they are transmitted orally from master to disciple thus once again justifying the meaning of shruti as audition. They are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages.
The Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophy whereas the Vedas focus on rituals. These texts constitute a major portion of the Jnāna Kānda, and contain much of the Vedas' philosophical teachings. The Upanishads discuss Brahman and reincarnation. While the Vedas are not read by most lay Hindus, they are yet revered as the eternal knowledge whose sacred sounds help bring spiritual and material benefits. Theologically, they take precedence over the Smriti.
The word smriti is applied to a vast category of literature in Hinduism. Unlike shruti, Sanskrit scripture without an author, smriti is considered to have an author and may even be written in one of the regional languages of India.
The most notable of the smritis are the Itihāsa, which consist of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the epic Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gītā is described as the essence of the Vedas.
Also widely known are the Purāṇas, which illustrate Vedic ideas through vivid narratives dealing with deities, and their interactions with humans. Other key texts are the Devī Mahātmya, the Yoga Sūtras, the Tantras as well as the Mahanirvāṇa Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras. Another important set of scriptures with a more sectarian nature are the Hindu Āgamas, which dedicate to rituals and worship associated with Vishnu, Shiva and Devī.
1. The Vedas
There are four Vedas (called Rik-, Sāma- Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and the most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Saṃhitā, which contains sacred mantras in verse. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose, which are historically believed to be slightly later in age than the Saṃhitā. These are: the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads. The first two parts are called the Karmakāṇḍa (the ritualistic portion), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (the knowledge portion).
The four Vedas constitute the most important body of sacred Hindu literature, at least in theory. Other sacred literature, especially the Hindu epics, may be more popular with readers, but the Vedas, written in the ancient Sanskrit language, are the oldest and most respected scriptures. They are separately titled the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda, and atharvaveda, and collectively referred to as the Veda.
The Upanishads or the Vedanta, which mark the culmination of the abstract speculation and contain the riches philosophical and religious teachings, are mostly parts of the Aranyakas or the Forest Treatises. Many Aranyakas are now lost, and only the Upanishadic portions of these profoundly philosophical books have escaped the erosion and ravages of time. There are many Upanishads, but the principal ones are sixteen or so in number. This whole literature contains deep spiritual truths and philosophy. The central teaching of the Upanishads underline the identity of the Supreme Soul and the individual Soul.
Purāna means "old". The Purānas are the later sacred literature of the Hindus. The Puranas are stories which expound the Vedic conclusions. There are many Purānas, but there are 18 major Purānas, and they can be classified according to which of the three Gods of the Hindu trinity they focus on—Brahmā, Vishnu, or Shiva. . Six Purānas deal with Lord Vishnu, six address Lord Siva and six deal with Lord Brahma. They are usually in question and answer form. There are also Upa (additional) Purānas. The Purānas establish the meaning of the Vedas, as they are the natural commentaries on the Vedas. The most famous of these is the Bhāgavata Purāna, which deals with the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu.
The Rāmāyaṇa consists of 24,000 verses in seven cantos (kāṇḍas) and tells the describes the life of Prince Rāma, an incarnation of Vishnu. Rāma and his wife Sītā embody virtue and righteousness, and their lives demonstrate dharma in various spheres of activity. Their life stories contain lessons for Hindus on ideal behavior in various roles, such as son, brother, wife, king, and married couple. Rāma’s reign ushers in a golden age, and the expression Rāma-rajya (rule of Rāma) describes the best of times in which the divine presence rules on Earth.
The Mahābhārata, is consists of more than 74,000 verses, long prose passages, and some 1.8 million words in total, is the longest epic poem in the world. It is the foremost source concerning classical Indian civilization and Hindu ideals. It traces the descendants of two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāndavas, whose disputes eventually lead to the Mahābhārata war. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, is central to the story. Like the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata addresses many questions related to dharma and the actions of individuals and society. These discourses have provided inspiration for Hindus in many areas of life.
The Bhagavad Gītā is comprised of 700 verses from the Mahabharata, functions virtually as a text on its own in Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gītā is revered as sacred by the majority of Hindu traditions. In general speech it is commonly referred to as The Gita. The content of the text is a conversation betweenKrishna and Arjuna taking place on the battlefield of Kurukshetra just prior to the start of a climactic war. Responding to Arjuna's confusion and moral dilemma, Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a famous warrior and Prince and elaborates on a number of different Yogas and Vedanta, with examples and analogies. This has led to the Gita often being described as a concise guide to Hindu philosophy and also as a practical, self-contained guide to life. During the discourse, Krishna reveals his identity as the bhagavan (Supreme Being), blessing Arjuna with an awe-inspiring glimpse of His divine absolute form.
Sadhana: Spiritual Practices
Hindu spiritual practices generally involve seeking awareness of God and sometimes also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity in the midst of everyday life. Hindus can engage in pūjā (worship or veneration), either at home or at a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with icons dedicated to the individual's chosen form(s) of God. Temples are usually dedicated to a primary deity along with associated subordinate deities though some commemorate multiple deities. Visiting temples is not obligatory. In fact, many visit temples only during religious festivals. Hindus perform their worship through murtis (icons). The icon serves as a tangible link between the worshiper and God. The image is often considered a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that the mūrti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood but as a manifest form of the Divinity.
Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The syllable Om (which represents the Parabrahman) and the Swastika sign (which symbolizes auspiciousness) have grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings such as tilaka identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular deities.
mantra are invocations, praise and prayers that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a devotee focus the mind on holy thoughts or express devotion to God/the deities. Many devotees perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri Mantra or Mahamrityunjaya mantras. The epic Mahabharata extolls Japa (ritualistic chanting) as the greatest duty in the Kali Yuga (the current age). Many adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice.
1. Om: Sacred Symbol and Sound
The sacred syllable om or aum functions at many levels. Hindus chant it as a means of meditating on the ultimate reality and connecting with the ātman (Innermost Self) and Brahman. At one level, om possesses a vibrational aspect apart from its conceptual significance. If pronounced correctly, its vibrations resonate through the body and penetrate the ātman. At another level, the three sounds that constitute the syllable—a, u, and m—have been associated with the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, states to which all life can be reduced. Thus, by repeating the syllable the chanter passes through all three states. Other associations of the three sounds are with the three states of the cosmos—manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution—and with the three aspects of Ishvara who preside over these cosmic states: Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva. Om thus functions at a practical level as a mantra and at a cosmic level as signifying the trinity.
2. Guru: Teacher
Spiritual authority in Hinduism flows from enlightened sages called gurus. The guru is someone who has attained realization and acts as a guide for other human beings. He or she guides the individual seeker of truth and self-realization to the appropriate deity, practice, or yoga within Hinduism. The disciple’s goal is to transcend the need for a guru through direct experience of the divine and self-awareness. Having a guide is considered critical for traversing the complexities of spiritual practice and self-discovery. The guru thus constitutes an important center of spiritual activity in Hinduism. Numerous Hindu hymns express adoration for the guru.
3. Yoga: Paths to Brahman
How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning, yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.
Someone who practices yoga is called a yogi. The chief texts dedicated to Yoga are the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads. Overall, three distinct approaches or margas (paths) are recognized, with marga being synonymous with yoga (paths one can follow to achieve the spiritual goal of life moksha):
- Karma Marga or Karma Yoga ("the path of action")
- Jñāna Marga or Jnana Yoga ("the path of knowledge")
- Bhakti Marga or Bhakti Yoga ("the path of devotion")
- Rāja Marga or Raja Yoga ("the royal path ")
An individual may prefer one yoga over others according to his or her inclination and understanding. For instance some followers of the dvaita-advaita school hold that bhakti ("devotion") is the ultimate practical path to achieve spiritual perfection for the majority of people, based on their belief that the earth is currently in the age of Kali Yuga (one of four stages, or epochs, that are part of the Yuga Cycle). Practice of one yoga does not exclude the others. In fact, many schools believe that the different yogas naturally imply, blend into and aid other yogas. For example, the practice of Jnana Yoga, is thought to inevitably lead to pure love (the goal of bhakti yoga), and vice versa. Someone practicing deep meditation (such as in Raja Yoga) must embody the core principles of Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, whether directly or indirectly.
1. Bhakti Yoga
The bhakti traditions emphasize cultivation of love and devotion for God as the path to perfection. Followers of bhakti typically worship God as a divine personal being or avatar, such as Rama or Krishna. Followers of the bhakti path strive to purify their minds and activities through the chanting of God's names (japa), prayer, devotional hymns (bhajan) and treating all living creatures with compassion. Bhakti followers seek to enjoy a loving relationship with God, rather than seek to merge their consciousness with Brahman as the followers of jnana yoga and raja yoga do.
2. Karma Yoga
The followers of karma yoga seek to achieve freedom by acting without attachment to the results of their actions. According to Hinduism, action is inevitable, and has one great disadvantage—any act done with attachment to its fruits generates karmic or psychological bondage. Followers of karma yoga follow the injunction in the Bhagavad Gita:
Without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.
Many followers of karma yoga offer the results of every action to God, thus combining karma yoga with bhakti yoga. However, it is possible for even an atheist to follow karma yoga by remaining mentally detached from the fruits of their actions. Benefits of karma yoga include purification of the heart, freedom from bondage to the ego, humility, and the growing understanding that Brahman is in all people.
3. Raja Yoga
The followers of Raja yoga seek direct experience of spiritual truth through meditation and yoga practices. Raja yoga is based on the Yoga Sutras of acharya-patanjali, which has eight 'limbs' that describe the stages a yogi must pass through to reach the goal of samadhi. The eight limbs begin with yama-niyama (right action) and asana (perfect meditative posture), and continue with control of pranayama (the body's life force). From there, the yogi practices techniques of meditation that take him through the progressive stages of pratyahara (interiorization), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). The final goal of the raja yogi—and the eighth limb of Patanjali's Sutras—is samadhi, or oneness with Brahman.
4. Jnana Yoga
Jnana yoga is the path of wisdom, or true knowledge, and appeals to people with an intellectual nature. The jnana yogi typically practices the four interrelated means to liberation:
- viveka: discrimination between what is real (the immortal Atman, or true self), and unreal (the changing universe)
- vairāgya, dispassion for the pleasures of this world.
- shad-sampat, the six virtues, which bring about mental control and discipline.
- mumukshutva, intense desire for liberation.
These practices lead to the unfoldment of wisdom (intuitive perception), rather than mere intellectual knowledge. Through discrimination and introspection, the jnana yogi eventually realizes the highest truth, that "I am Brahman, the pure, all-pervading Consciousness."
4. Satsanga: Fellowship
A popular form of participation in religious life is the satsanga, which literally means keeping company with sat (truth and goodness). The satsanga may consist of Hindus who gather for discussions of Hindu scripture or of a circle of devotees who have formed around a saintly figure. A sant (saint) in Hindu Dharma is someone who has realized the sat (Truth) and attained recognition from the community for doing so. Other forms of worship that occur at satsangas are chanting or singing, especially devotional songs called bhajans. On religious occasions the chanting the om sound is considered particularly holy.
Rituals and Ceremonies
The vast majority of Hindus engage in Vedic rituals on a daily basis. Most Hindus observe Vedic rituals at home. However, observation of rituals greatly vary among regions, villages, and individuals. Devout Hindus perform daily chores such as worshiping at the dawn after bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images of deities), recitation from religious scripts, singing devotional hymns, meditation, chanting mantras, reciting scriptures etc. A notable feature in Vedic ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralised before or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action. Other characteristics include a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice and concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world. yajña (Vedic rites of fire-oblation) are now only occasional practices although they are highly revered in theory. In Hindu wedding and burial ceremonies, however, the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras are still the norm.
Occasions like birth, marriage, and death involve what are often elaborate sets of religious customs. In Hindu Dharma, life-cycle rituals include Annaprashan (a baby's first intake of solid food), Upanayanam ("sacred thread ceremony" undergone by upper-caste youths), Shraadh (ritual of treating people to feasts in the name of the deceased). For most people in India, the betrothal of the young couple and the exact date and time of the wedding are matters decided by the parents in consultation with astrologers. On death, cremation is considered obligatory for all except sanyasis, hijra, and children under five. Cremation is typically performed by wrapping the corpse in cloth and burning it on a pyre.
Pilgrimage and Festivals
Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hindu Dharma though many adherents undertake them. Hindus recognise several Indian holy cities, including Allahabad, Haridwar, Varanasi, and Vrindavan. Notable temple cities include Puri, which hosts a major Vaishnava Jagannath temple and Rath Yatra celebration; Tirumala - Tirupati, home to the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple; and Katra, home to the Vaishno Devi temple. The four holy sites Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath (or alternatively the Himalayan towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri) compose the Char Dham (four abodes) pilgrimage circuit. The Kumbh Mela (the "pitcher festival") is one of the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages that is held every four years; the location is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain. Another important set of pilgrimages are the Shakti Peethas, where the Mother Goddess is worshipped, the two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya.
Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year. The Hindu calendar usually prescribe their dates. The festivals typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with seasonal changes. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by specific sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent. Some widely observed Hindu festivals are Dussera or Durga Puja, Diwali (the festival of lights), Ganesh Chaturthi, Maha Shivaratri, Ram Navami, Krishna Janmastami, Holi.
Hindu Dharma has no central doctrinal authority and many practising Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination. However, academics categorize contemporary Hindu society into four major denominations: vaishnava, saiva, shakta and smarta. The denominations differ primarily in the God worshipped as the Supreme One and in the traditions that accompany worship of that God.
Vaishnavas worship Vishnu; saivas worship Siva; shaktas worship Shakti (power) personified through a female divinity or Mother Goddess, Devi; while smartas believe in the essential sameness of all deities.
There are movements that are not easily placed in any of the above categories, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Arya Samaj, which rejects image worship and veneration of multiple deities. It focuses on the Vedas and the yajña (Vedic fire sacrifices).
Further reading on the Subject
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